Why, Charles Dickens Himself
Still currently waylaid in middle-Englandshire, patiently wilting like peeling wallpaper in many other purgatorial bureaucratic waiting rooms amidst other miserable grockles, I find myself reflecting on places once often frequented. Belgium, it turns out, is the most depressing country in the entire world. Navigating the pedestrian thoroughfares with their dirty, rather flavescent art deco buildings is like wading through a deeply depressing passage in the King James bible. The general population are rather remontado to say the very least. Those, astoundingly gliriform in appearance, still able to walk upright for more than a few moments, are usually to be seen wearing a grand multitude of havelocks, tricornes and a vast array of 1970's discount-store jeans. A turf of hair atop a bald wart strewn pate, mildy cynocephalous, infested with intestinal worms and the ability to grow a fully waxed 'Hercule' moustache, seems to be the norm amongst a community deprived for so long of bohemian culture. The men are just as bad. It could well be that Bob Dylan fathered many more children of the corn than was first thought during his first European tour.
Tractors and hay-bailing machines litter the sides of the main street, jostling for position between odious pumpkin sellers and dour tourists busy slurping thin turnip broth from the shells of such animals as a turtle or an armadillo. Beneath damp moss covered arches, effeminate men beckon you ever closer to sample garish baroque vaudeville tomfoolery. Oodles of drunken cypripareuniaphile Thracians, Dacians and ill-read Illyrians hawk phlegm onto the chewing gum clad pavements whilst pondering an incestuous desire for their own platyopic sisters. Elsewhere, otherwise innocent god-fearing canines fail miserably to find a clean place on which to deposit their early evening constitutional shite. Why, Charles Dickens himself would have redacted many a tale if he had been forced to tread these very steps in his quest for fine literature back in the day. What say you Mr Pip? In Belgium, it feels as though it is a wet Monday every day of the week.
Located at the dank and dire crossroads between Germanic and Latin Europe, Belgium, began life as a country with nothing. It still has most of what it started out with. It is seemingly distributed like a fly-spattered turd in the filthiness of many grubby cobbled courtyards known locally as 'flea markets'. Quite apt I thought. The national dish served daily appears to be any vegetation felled from the rear of a trotters cart, pickled in aspic, covered in porcine vomit garnished lightly with a sticky nasal bovine froth. A typical menu ominously featured baklava, sauerkraut, rotted figs and something called ajvar. Ajvar, a grim mushy looking substance, that reminded me of a babies first poo, it is served between two toasted buns and smothered in garlic butter, uncooked onions and something closely resembling a corpses teeth. I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain only to become a vegetarian. I passed on lunch needless to say. It also passed me several times as it attempted to escape from the filthy serving tray attached to the street sellers carts.
To while away the time we found our attention drawn towards a rather lively music hall bar that seemingly resembled a bank. Unable to get close enough to the bar to buy a drink or make a withdrawal, we looked on as refugees from the cold war bumped and grunted their genitalia to the sound of a wind-driven organ while whooping and frothing in time to the off-key cries of pain from the instrument being tortured. Considering this is a country where its people still consider kiwi fruit to be exotic and sleeveless cardigans to be risque and somewhat decadent, I was somewhat taken aback to find that the hideously prostrated ladies of the night that gathered herd-like by the entrance to the grim reaper of all train stations had managed to decorate themselves with many fishnet garments. I doubt that it was fishing the ladies had in mind during the purchase, although there was a rather strange odour of mackerel that permeated the air. On endless occasions I saw associates of Looby's latest sullen house-guest peddling an endless array of home-grown plants wrapped in foil.
Unable to find food, sustenance and a bed for the night in Antwerp that did not involve holding a young lady's cigarette while she waxed lyrically about a happy ending, we moved on a few miles towards the small suburb of Walloon. There we secured fine cuisine and clean, comfortable lodgings in a rather nice setting. I was informed that Brussels is the stopping off point for many of the murderous asylum seekers from eastern Europe before they enter into Britain. That at least explained the undoubtedly batrachophagous menu and the clothing that reminded me of numerous jaded and jaculiferous old men. Anything to ease the forthcoming transition into the ambiance of downtown Manchester, eh? I managed two large portions in homage to our hosts very own recipe of Minced lamb and golden tattie pie, of which the waiter served up before me with shaking hands for some unknown reason. I had clearly not concealed a hatchet beneath my waistcoat on this occasion. I do seem to have the same effect when people first see me. However, with so many hideously deformed faces of Gargoyles that litter the city walls on constant view, I'd have thought that mine would have fitted right in. Och well...
Minced Lamb & Golden Tattie Hot-Pot
600g lean minced lamb
2 white onions, sliced
1 plump carrot
1 fresh stick of celery
5 large Irish potatoes
25g melted butter
1 tbsp plain flour
350 ml of lamb or beef stock
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
Heat a good quality oil in a large iron skillet over a medium heat. Saute the onions until soft and deep golden in colour. Remove from the skillet and set aside. Add the lamb mince and brown it in batches until rich chestnut brown in colour. 12 to 15 minutes should do. Drain the excess fat and reserve.
For the love of the blessed Mary herself, at this point do not forget to preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) or the timing of your meal will be all to cock.
Spread half of the sliced tatties and veg in the bottom of a large metal baking dish. Season to taste. Place the browned mince and onions on top, then sprinkle with thyme and season again if required. Cover with the remaining tatties and dot with butter. Pour the stock in and add the flour, cover the mince with the liquid, add a wee drop of Guinness or brown ale, cover with foil and cook for 2 hours. Remove the foil to brown the tatties during the last half an hour.
Serve with any choice of veg apart from brussels of course, a good bottle or three of dry white wine (red if you must) followed by a decent cheese board.
Created & prepared by Chef Files